In Canada, search and rescue (SAR) is a shared responsibility among federal, provincial/territorial and municipal organizations, as well as air, ground and maritime volunteer SAR organizations. There is a distinct organizational difference between the responsibility for ground SAR (GSAR) and that of aeronautical and maritime SAR.
Due to its vast size and range of environments, the country relies on a diverse group of government, military, volunteer, academic and industry partners to provide overall SAR services to the Canadian public.
In addition to responding to SAR emergencies, the organizations also invest time and resources to help prevent incidents from occurring. United by the common theme of “working together to save lives,” the collective work of these partners forms the backbone of Canada’s National SAR Program (NSP).
The primary SAR responsibility of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is the provision of aeronautical SAR and the coordination of the aeronautical and maritime SAR system.
CAF resources may also assist in GSAR efforts, medical evacuations and other humanitarian incidents if requested by the responsible provincial/territorial or municipal authority. The Canadian Rangers, Reserve Force members of the CAF, regularly aid in GSAR upon request in sparsely settled regions of the country.
The NSP is a horizontal program that integrates organizations and resources that are involved in the provision of SAR services to Canadians, and includes SAR response and prevention.
The Minister of National Defence (MND) is the Lead Minister for Search and Rescue (LMSAR). The NSP is led by the MND and supported by the National SAR Secretariat (NSS). The NSS is an autonomous arm’s length organization within the Department of National Defence whose executive director reports directly to the MND.
The NSS is responsible for the management and coordination of the NSP, ensuring best use is made of SAR partners’ diverse resources and capabilities. It is responsible for:
The executive director of the NSS chairs the federal Interdepartmental Committee on Search and Rescue (ICSAR). This committee is responsible for advising the MND and the Government of Canada on issues related to SAR in Canada. Members of the ICSAR include:
The CAF have the primary responsibility for the provision of aeronautical SAR services (search for downed aircraft) whereas the CCG is responsible for maritime SAR services. The CAF is responsible for the effective operation of this coordinated aeronautical and maritime SAR system. Commander Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC), who is accountable for all CAF operations around the world, is responsible for:
SAR operations are divided into three search and rescue regions (SRR). These regions are named after their respective Joint Rescue Coordination Centres (JRCC):
The JRCCs are operated by a team of professional SAR experts from both the CAF and the CCG. They have access to and can task dedicated military SAR aircraft, CCG vessels and crews to respond to an emergency in their region.
Furthermore, SRR commanders can task additional CAF naval or air resources and CCG resources to respond to SAR missions within their regions. SAR coordinators may call upon any asset having a capacity to assist in any given situation and will use any resource at their disposal to render assistance to those in need as quickly as possible. If more SAR assets are required to support a particular mission, Commander CJOC can task all available CAF resources from anywhere in Canada.
CAF SAR is involved in the coordination of roughly 10,000 aeronautical and maritime incidents annually, tasking military aircraft in over 1,000 cases. Historically, these actions have provided assistance to more than 20,000 persons and regularly help save approximately 1,200 Canadian lives each year.
The Canadian federal area of responsibility (AOR) is defined both under International Civil Aviation Organization agreements for aeronautical SAR and International Maritime Organisation agreements for maritime SAR. This AOR extends over 18 million square kilometres of land and sea – an area one-and-a-half times that of Canada’s landmass.
The aeronautical SAR area extends from the U.S. border to the North Pole, and from approximately 600 nautical miles (1,111 km) west of Vancouver Island in the Pacific Ocean to 900 nautical miles (1,667 km) east of Newfoundland in the Atlantic.
The maritime SAR mandate includes the oceanic waters within this area, in addition to the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes.
The CAF have the capability to provide aeronautical and maritime SAR services into the farthest and most remote locations in our Arctic region. The CCG is capable of providing SAR services to the Arctic on a seasonal basis through the deployment of icebreakers and some science vessels.
GSAR in Canada is conducted under the legal authority of the individual provinces and territories. This authority is delegated for operational response to the jurisdictional police services.
At the provincial level, the RCMP is the operational authority for GSAR in all Canadian provinces and territories except Ontario, Quebec, and parts of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Ontario Provincial Police, Sûreté du Québec and Royal Newfoundland Constabulary have the authority in these jurisdictions.
Parks Canada leads GSAR in federal parks and preserves.
The provinces and territories have appointed representatives to a working group to establish provincial and territorial GSAR standards of training and competency.
Successful SAR operations rely on, among other factors, having the right capabilities at the right time. These capabilities include the right equipment, highly-skilled personnel, a response posture, appropriate location of SAR resources and procedures.
CAF SAR squadrons have been strategically located throughout the country, according to the historical distribution of distress incidents in order to provide the most effective SAR response to the greatest number of potential incidents.
Current policy requires each SRR to have one of each type of aircraft on standby posture for an immediate response. Eight high readiness CAF air SAR resources (four helicopters and four fixed-wing aircraft) are located in proximity to historically high concentrations of incidents in order to respond to the greatest number of cases in the least amount of time.
The SRR Commanders have the discretion to increase the posture during times of heightened risk.
The Royal Canadian Air Force Wings, based across Canada, provide military air resources in response to approximately 1,000 annual SAR taskings.
The CAF CH-149 Cormorant and CH-146 Griffon helicopters are the primary rotary-wing aircraft used to respond to SAR. They offer swift response times, powerful hover and hoist capabilities, and dedicated SAR personnel.
SAR fixed-wing aircraft, such as the CC-115 Buffalo and CC-130 Hercules, offer dedicated SAR personnel and specialized equipment such as air-droppable survival kits, including life rafts and shelters.
Most other CAF aircraft, such as the CH-124 Sea King and the CP-140 Aurora, have a secondary SAR role.
The Royal Canadian Navy maintains two ready-duty ships on standby – one on each of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Other naval ships, particularly those at sea and in the vicinity of a maritime incident, can be tasked by the SRR Commander as necessary.
In addition to these assets, JRCCs may call upon any civilian assets in the area, when required.
The CAF have approximately 140 Search and Rescue Technicians (SAR Techs). SAR Techs are highly trained specialists who provide advanced pre-hospital medical care and rescue for aviators, mariners and others in distress in remote or hard-to-reach areas. These men and women are trained to a Primary care Paramedic national standard with additional advanced skills.
SAR Techs are land and sea survival experts who specialize in rescue techniques, including Arctic rescue, parachuting, diving, mountain-climbing and helicopter rescue.
SAR Techs are present on every CAF primary SAR aircraft deployed on a SAR mission and they have saved thousands of lives nationwide.
The CAF sponsor and fund the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA), a volunteer organization established in 1985 that augments the military’s capacity to respond to air incidents by making available private aircraft and trained volunteer crews for SAR missions. CASARA aircraft and crews provide search and communications services.
The CCG also sponsors a volunteer organization, the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (CCGA), which provides vessels and crews which are fully capable of maritime rescue, to support CCG primary SAR resources. Annually, CCGA crews and vessels respond to 27 per cent of all maritime SAR incidents in Canada.
The Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada (SARVAC) provides volunteer GSAR services in support to provincial/territorial GSAR efforts. SARVAC is a not for profit volunteer educational organization and has representation in every province/territory with more than 12,000 trained volunteers across Canada.
In May 2011, Canada and the seven other Arctic Council member states (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States) signed The Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic in Nuuk, Greenland. Commonly known as the Arctic SAR Agreement, it builds upon previous United Nations and other agreements addressing SAR to strengthen cooperation between the Arctic states and to improve the way the Arctic Council members respond to emergencies in the Arctic.
In October 2011, CJOC coordinated an Arctic SAR Table Top Exercise in Whitehorse, Yukon, which brought international experts in SAR together to examine ways to enhance SAR response across the vast Arctic region. Canada hosted this exercise as a demonstration of the Government of Canada and the CAF’s leadership and longstanding commitment to Arctic SAR. Representatives from the international SAR community, federal, provincial, territorial, and regional government partners, volunteer organizations, and other SAR stakeholders attended the two-day exercise. During the event, delegations showcased their nation’s SAR capabilities and participated in focused discussions on Arctic SAR scenarios that would require international cooperation and resources.